Friday, November 20, 2009

Religion and Scientific Autonomy

When we determine whether we can trust someone, a prime consideration is whether that person is independent of external influences that might affect judgment or testimony. In a similar way, a core element in science’s claim to be a socially productive source of knowledge of the natural world is that it has autonomy . In science autonomy operates at different levels, from the freedom of the individual scientist to choose research goals and methods of pursuing them to the independence of the scientific establishment as a whole from interference from government or other powerful influence groups. This does not mean that there are no constraints on scientists. A host of laws and norms of good practice operate to prohibit certain kinds of research; for example, research with the potential for harming human subjects, or that would endanger anyone in the vicinity of a research facility. These are motivated by moral and ethical standards of the broadest kind, the same sorts of constraints that apply to people and organizations generally.

As I have explained in the book Imperfect Oracle, science frequently comes into conflict with other social sectors because it challenges older traditional understandings. These conflicts are nowhere more evident than in the United States, in science’s contentious encounters with conservative Christian groups. Here the issue that comes to the fore is whether certain kinds of research should be constrained because they are deemed contrary to the religious dogmas of a particular group of people. One of the hot topics over the past several years has been embryonic stem cell research. Christian conservatives, in concert with the Catholic Church, have campaigned against the use of embryonic stem cells, whatever the source from which they have been obtained, on the grounds that such cells literally constitute a human life, and their destruction would be a violation of God’s law.

The latest chapter in this seemingly endless saga is centered in Nebraska, where the extreme right-to-lifers have taken a new tack: get opponents of embryonic stem cell research elected to the University’s board of regents. A majority of such board members there could pass a ruling that restricts research on embryonic stem cells to the limited list approved years ago by President George W. Bush. The policies related to stem cell research were greatly liberalized by the Obama administration in Executive Order 13505. Thus the policy that may be put into place by the Board of Regents would move the University of Nebraska back to the dark ages of stem cell research. Actually, no embryos would be destroyed at the University of Nebraska in any case; cell lines that are, or would be, used were developed elsewhere and copied cells would be employed. That, however, still causes problems for those who advocate forbidding research with such materials.

The continuing controversy over the use of stem cells has led to formation of such organizations as The Nebraska Coalition for Ethical Research. These people claim not to be opposed to science, or even to stem cell research; they just want it done on their terms. They are free with their advice that scientists simply focus on adult stem cells. They point to recent work that has shown that adult stem cells can be reprogrammed so that they mimic the properties of embryonic stem cells. But what qualifications do these people have for advising scientists on how best to carry out their work? Reprogramming of adult stem cells is in its infancy, and there are many impediments to its general application. There is no assurance that it will ever constitute a substitute for work with embryonic stem cells. Even setting that aside, however, the point is that science cannot operate effectively when it is confined by an entity outside science on grounds that have nothing to do with the scientific merits of the work.

Science’s autonomy, its capacity to move in directions dictated by scientific considerations, is constrained in this and related instances because one particular social group frames the work in its own extra-scientific terms, and wants to hold the rest of society hostage to its judgments. The public seems dismayingly willing to tolerate such extremism. I hope, however, that it will become increasingly evident that most of us are the losers when the extremists win; things might then change. Society is not well-served by outmoded ways of thinking based on religious doctrines tailored by church authorities in other eras for their own dubious reasons. One does not have to become an atheist or agnostic to conclude that organized religion has, for the most part, become a bad thing for society. Like other addictions, however, it seems to be a hard habit to break.

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